Who cares if Master Chief shows his face in the next Halo?
"They can never show the Master Chief's face! It would ruin the series!"
We've heard this argument again and again from the loudest of fanboys to the most casual Halo fans. Game journalists argue about it on podcasts. Entire interviews are focused on whether this Halo game will be the game where his face is finally shown. Bungie was adamant that they'd never show his face and 343 has danced around the idea in Halo 4 and its advertising.
All I can wonder is why anyone cares anymore?
There was a time when I was the biggest Halo fan I knew. My favorite bit of Halo storytelling is the radio play that came out of the ilovebees ARG surrounding the release of Halo 2. These days the number of books and comics are too numerous to keep up with, but I still have some desire to check it out. By all accounts I should be one of those guys extolling the importance of keeping the Chief’s helmet on.
It doesn’t really make sense, though. If there were some kind of mystery about what he looked like, it’s been gone for quite some time. Even 343’s Frank O’Connor says as much in an interview with Eurogamer:
“The funny thing about the Chief is he's actually really well described. If you went down into that line and found a nerd with a deep canon Halo t-shirt and said describe the Master Chief to this police sketch artist, that police sketch artist would then produce a perfectly accurate rendering of an older man, almost painfully pale, almost albino white, with pale blue eyes, reddish hair, close cropped to a skin head, and maybe the last remnants of freckles he had when he was a kid."
That description is based on The Fall of Reach, the first of the Halo books and the one hardcore Halo fans are most likely to have read. Advertising for Halo 4 has shown the Chief’s face when he was a child and danced around a lot of what he looks like without his suit. Halo 4’s Legendary ending goes a step further, revealing his eyeline.
It’s all senseless teasing though, because we know, deep down, what the Master Chief looks like. He is a seven-foot muscular white guy with a shaved head and some battle scars. He shares the face of every bald space marine from Starcraft to Gears of War. It’s hardly something everyone can relate to, and yet that’s another idea everyone seems to hold dear: that players can apply themselves to the blank slate.
In that same Eurogamer piece, O’Connor continues, “...that's a device to keep the player invested in the character and keep the player from constantly being reminded that they're not a hero or that they have to be a boy or they have to be a girl, or whatever that is."
Do people really do this though? Do they really think to themselves, “I am the Master Chief,” when they play? We already know he’s an impossibly huge man who speaks in gravely action-movie one-liners. He has his own identity and it isn’t relatable at all.
Compare this to a game that went in a completely different direction. Dead Space 2 ditched Isaac Clarke’s silent-protagonist gimmick in favor of giving him a real voice and a unique personality. I’d argue that even though we see Isaac’s face, he is infinitely more relatable because he actually has a human personality. He is stressed, frightened, and angered by the horrors he deals with and his reactions seem genuine. If I were in his situation I’d be letting out a steady stream of expletives as well!
That’s not to say the Master Chief doesn’t have his moments as well. His banter with Cortana is often great. His brutish solutions to every problem show that he does, in fact, have a personality. But he isn’t you or I, and I think that’s okay.
In fact, it’s better than okay. The idea that the Master Chief is a vessel for any player to apply themselves to seems very narrow-minded. If he were truly inclusive he wouldn’t be a “he” at all. Had the Chief always stayed in “its” suit, never described physically and always speaking with a voice filter, THEN maybe we could consider it a vessel. As it stands he’s at best a power fantasy for an 18-to-34 white male marketing demographic.
If Halo 5 opened on the Master Chief’s pale, battle-scarred face as he describes the next mission the world would not end. Quite the opposite, it would signal a truly new direction for the series going forward. I think that’s something the Halo series desperately needs.